During the 1970s I sometimes watched a syndicated game show called “Liars Club.” It featured a panel of four celebrities who would be given an unusual object and asked to explain what it was. Then three contestants would have to decide which of the four was telling the truth.
One day I missed the beginning of the show, so I had no idea who one of the panelists was. The other three were familiar: Larry Hovis (formerly of “Hogan’s Heroes”), possibly Betty White (whose husband, Allen Ludden, was hosting) and someone else whom I can’t remember but certainly recognized at the time.
But the fourth panelist was a young guy I’d never seen before. But though I didn’t know him, I did know right off the bat that he was almost effortlessly hilarious.
I listened carefully so I could catch his name. Eventually someone (probably Ludden) said it:
Some time later I saw this guy again. This time he was on Tom Snyder’s “Tomorrow” show along with two other people, one of whom was a young woman who seemed to agree that David Letterman was hilarious.
Of course I had no way of knowing that I was witnessing the start of a career that would prove to be almost as legendary as Johnny Carson’s. But if you had told me then that more than 30 years later David Letterman would be retiring at the top of his profession, I wouldn’t have stared at you in disbelief.
Because even back then, the guy had it.
Not too long after the “Tomorrow” appearance, Letterman, abetted by Markoe, hosted a live but short-lived daytime talk show on NBC. It aired in the late morning and included a brief newscast by Edwin Newman, who’d been doing a newscast during that time period for some time. Thing is, Newman’s newscast had followed one of the shows Letterman was replacing, and Newman had done it from a separate studio.
Now Newman was on stage with Letterman, and when Letterman introduced the newscast, the audience applauded -- something Newman wasn’t ready for (no one ever gave Walter Cronkite, the Most Trusted Man in America, an ovation), but he soldiered on with his customary deadpan grace.
I think I caught a number of Letterman’s morning shows – I worked nights and was usually up in the late morning – so I was able to witness the beginnings of the type of anti-conformist humor that Letterman would become more famous for at a later hour.
As much as I liked Letterman, I didn’t see his late-night shows often because I was usually working and didn’t care enough to tape him. But I knew he was there and knew that I could count on him to be funny if I happened to have a night off or get home early.
Of course, one problem with watching a performer’s career evolve over the years is that you evolve, too – or, to put it more plainly, you get older, too.
So that when Letterman, in response to critics who chide him for no longer doing the remote bits that he specialized in years ago, says he’s older and too tired, you almost identify with him. I suppose there are many people in their sixties who can say with no trace of a doubt that they could still do the things they did 30 years ago as well as they did them then.
I am not one of those people.
This doesn’t mean I’m willing to give Dave an unlimited pass. Having watched him more often during the last eight years now that I’m no longer in the newspaper business, I’ve been irritated by his habit of repeating (and maybe re-repeating) jokes from the night before or from several nights before. To be fair, I don’t think he’s done this lately, but I do know I could do without his penchant for making jokes that mean nothing to me at home but get whoops from the audience because they refer to someone whom Dave interacted with during the warm-up.
I won’t go so far as to say that Dave has ever phoned it in, but there have been times when his finger has hovered dangerously close to the keypad.
There’s been a lot of speculation as to whether Letterman will ever return to TV, or whether he’ll just disappear like his idol, Carson.
And it’s also been pointed out that Carson never intended to quit completely, but just never found anything else he wanted to do. (And in its own way, I think that doing nothing was, paradoxically, a brilliant career move for Carson. When I heard that he had died, one of my first thoughts was that it would no longer be possible to hope that someday, maybe, just maybe, he’d resurface somewhere, however briefly, and be just as funny. For although he had left us laughing, it was always hard for me to accept that Johnny Carson had really left.)
I’d like to think that Letterman will return in a format that suits both him and the audience – maybe something quick and easy once in a while. Something like Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”
And as sorry as I am to see Letterman go, in a way I’m looking forward to his last show. For although he is a comedian, Letterman, like Carson, is fundamentally a broadcaster -- his powerful remarks after 9/11 prove that – and I’m sure he’ll go out with his idol’s same type of Midwestern style, with at least a few grace notes thrown in.